Americans have been watching change accelerate. These are not normal times. I have been thinking about what has changed and why. I’m especially interested in the ways our identity and character as a people have unfolded over time.
Is the change we have been experiencing in recent years all bad? Can there be both positive and negative dimensions to events that force us to focus our minds and rethink our vision, direction, and values?
The inevitability of plural and conflicting values tests character. While it is natural for values to be influenced by social conditions or challenged by events, it is when we stop paying attention that we are caught by surprise.
Living in a pluralistic society is a challenge and a responsibility.
It is with this concern that I wish to review some historical viewpoints. I have no intention of passing judgment in this forum. But, I think it is important to consider how we came to be where we are, and this is one dimension of my forthcoming book.
The American story is one of visionary hopefulness, realized in fits and starts over the course of more than two centuries. It has been part courageous and inspiring, and in other aspects both baffling and troubling. It is a work in progress.
Two concerns that I think are pivotal in any consideration of our national identity include our understanding of the vision and principles of the Founders, and, secondly, our mutual respect as citizens who respect that vision.
Personal independence and acceptance of individual differences are concerns of great significance to Americans.
Yet, there has been a clear divergence between the vibrant and spontaneous civic life that characterized much of early American history, and during the same period a record of violence and brutality revealing an arrogance that defied accountability.
Who are we, really? Who do we want to be?
Anti-social behavior will evoke revulsion in most of us. But, historically the dark side of individualistic egotism has been socially acceptable, even conspicuous, in racist attitudes and practices toward American Indians, African-Americans and other minorities. We have an painful legacy of violence, accentuated by the degradation of slavery, drugs and prostitution.
And, the destruction we are seeing today is very great. We have witnessed a profound deterioration of moral character and social responsibility in recent decades.
We live in a time of extremes. Consider: Mass murder and sexual violence are escalating at an appalling rate. Prior to 1960 mass murder in the United States was rare, with no more than several incidences per decade. This has changed steadily since then.
In 2015 there were 333 mass shootings in the United States and 13,485 deaths by gunshot, with 697 children and 2,694 teens killed or injured. In 2016 there were 385 mass shootings and 15,054 deaths by gunshot, with 670 children and 3,114 teens killed or injured. (Source: shootertracker.com)
This is but one example among many of the social degradation and abasement we can see all around us.
The current break down of social order has been complicated process. The economic abandonment of working Americans and the destruction of the middle class has been taking place over several decades with little notice. I believe parenting is also a factor.
A lack of perceptiveness and foresight among our political leadership and financial professionals has undermined social and economic stability on a broad scale. Institutions we have depended upon are facing financial bankruptcy; systems are breaking down; people are losing their grip.
How is it that we have so completely lost our way, our sense of purpose, our understanding of the integrity of our place in the world?
We now find ourselves confronted by the practical consequences of material loss, fear and anger. Most importantly, we have lost our sense of direction and ultimate purpose – and thus the conceptual framework upon which rational judgment depends.
The spirit is wounded.
If we wish to regain a civil society in which we join one another to resolve problems, we will need to step aside from unproductive bickering, extricate ourselves from the wreckage, and rise above our differences – to face the complex dangers that now confront us.
Note to readers: In the coming weeks we will consider implications suggested by our national past through the eyes of historian Niall Ferguson, political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and conservative commentator Richard Weaver. Please look for the next post on or about February 24.